Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Table manners

I haven't written about eating together as a family for a long time and it seems I'm overdue. In talking with people, it seems that one of the more difficult aspects of sharing dinner together as a family is the lack of table manners in the children who are participating. With a little training and a little patience, this is something you can make better.

I will be the first to admit that my children do not exhibit perfect table manners. They are all a work in progress, but I also feel fairly confident in taking them out in public to eat and we generally make it through dinner in a relatively chaos-free way. So here are my tips for encouraging good table manners in your children.

  1. Start early. We start working on table manners as soon as a child is able to sit at the table. (For us this is usually somewhere around two.) This doesn't mean we expect them to know how to behave, but it is the time to start practicing. For instance, in our home, no one eats their food until all are served and we have said grace. Now a two year old is probably not able to exhibit that type of self-control, so we serve their plate and set it out of reach of them until we have said grace. Use utensils that they can easily use so they don't have to resort to fingers. You want to help them be as successful as possible.
  2. Have a few rules that you focus on. Our top three would be: everyone stays at the table until all are done (you may ask to be excused to get to get something); no eating with your fingers; no comments are allowed about the food unless they are positive. All of these have resulted in a child losing their meal at one time or another. If you get up, you must be done. If you do not like the food, then we won't make you suffer to have it front of you. And if you eat with your fingers? Well, some children have needed extreme measures to bother to remember to use their silverware. 
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Just because one meal didn't go well, don't give up! It takes many, many meals for these to become ingrained habits. In the long run, if you do this every night, eventually no one will think about it any more, it (being decent manners) will just be a part of life. But if you only eat together at a table sporadically, it will take significantly longer if it ever happens at all. You show your children what you really think is important by how much time you devote to it. You can say table manners are important all you want, but if you rarely eat at a table together, then your actions show you don't quite believe that is true.
  4. Make it fun. You want your children to enjoy eating dinner as a family. If all you do is harp on their bad manners, it will not be enjoyable for anyone. Every so often make having good manners a game. Dole out pennies for every time you see someone using good manners and remove pennies for poor manners, so who has the most pennies at the end of dinner. (Parents should be playing along as well. Rare is the child who doesn't enjoy catching a parent out.) One game I played growing up was to send someone around the table if they put their elbows on it more than twice in a row. Once again, adults are included, too. If you aren't smiling through at least part of dinner, figure out how you can lighten up the atmosphere.
  5. Have a fancy dinner every now and then. Dress up, use the good china, set the table with more than one fork. I've found that children (actually anyone) are prone to behave better if they are dressed up, or at least in nicer clothes than they normally wear. This is a great chance to teach some more formal manners. Why do formal tables have so many pieces of silverware? Explain that to your children and teach them how to set a formal table. If you don't know, then look it up and learn together. To me, this is a life skill. You have no idea what type of situations your children will be in as adults. If they are already comfortable with the idea of a formal dinner, you are easing their path in life. 
  6. Make conversation. Having good table manners means that you are contributing to the conversation. If this has been a problem in the past, there are some things you can do about it. Have some conversation starters on the table. Just come up with things to talk about and write them on a piece of paper and put one at each person's place. Need ideas? Just Google 'conversation starters' and you'll have more than enough. Be aware of who is and isn't joining in. Some children need a little extra prodding or at least a direct question. And be careful about not laughing at what the youngest family members have to say. If they meant it as a joke, that's fine. But nothing will kill the desire to contribute faster than thinking you will be laughed at every time you speak.
  7. Model good manners and conversational skills. Be sure you are modelling the type of behavior you want to see in your children. If anything, the adults need to be extra careful in how they behave at the table because little eyes are watching. If Dad picks at his food, don't be surprised if the children do as well. If Mom jumps up to answer the phone every time it rings, don't be surprised if the younger generation is surreptitiously checking their texts under the table.
  8. Which leads me to my last suggestion... don't invite electronics to the table. No TM. No computer. No phone. No iPod. This goes for everyone. If the phone rings, don't answer it. Isn't that why we have answering machines and voice mail? Every time a device is chosen over the live people right in front of you, it is screaming, "YOU DON'T MATTER TO ME!" You may not think this is what you are saying, but I'm pretty sure your children and your spouse do. Value the people you live with over the people on the other end of the electronics.

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